Chapter V: Soldiering
"Early Days in India"


The second bombshell of my life burst upon me some four months after leaving school. I was on board the Gertrude, a yacht belonging to Professor Acland, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, an old friend of my father’s, who was his "opposite number" as Savilian Professor of Geometry.

One of the guests on board was the Dean of Christchurch, the celebrated and handsome old divine, Dr. Little.

The Dean accosted me one morning with the news that, according to the newspaper, a namesake of mine had passed his exam for the Army. And there, in black and white, was my own name!

Well, the Army Council cannot well turn me out now, so I may as well confess that I practically got into the Army by fraud; that is, I got in by examination, but examination is by no means a fair test of a fellow’s abilities.

When I went up for the Army Exam, it was naturally without much hope of passing. Indeed I took the whole thing airily as a trial canter over the course.

In the subject of Euclid I had never succeeded in getting over the pons asinorum, but with a certain cunning I wrote out in the Loisette method—the Pelman system of those days and committed to memory the several books of Euclid required for the Army Exam. My success was complete though the real meaning of those problems was, and is to-day, a sealed book to me.


Early in my Army career I committed myself to authorship by writing a little handbook for the use of my men, called Reconnaissance and Scouting. Later on when I came up for examination for promotion in the subject of Reconnaissance the examiner asked whether I was the author of the handbook on the subject, and he had the decency to pass me without any further question.

So to any candidate for examination who is doubtful about his ability to pass in any particular subject, my advice is to write a book about it and let it be known to the examiner that you are the author. Material for the book can, of course, be obtained from the many other existing books on the subject


In due course I got a footing on the Staff in a humble capacity, as A.D.C. to General H. A. Smyth, Commander-in-Chief in South Africa.

When the news came to the Regiment that I was to be seconded for this job the men of my Squadron presented me with an illuminated address printed on white satin in which they generously gave me their good wishes for success. Testimonials from men to their officers are strictly forbidden, yet, I ask, what can you do about it when the thing itself is actually there thrust into your hand? Anyhow—it is one of my most treasured possessions to-day.

My previous experience of Staff work had been when, in India, I had been appointed temporarily to the Staff of the Duke of Connaught, when His Royal Highness was Divisional General at Meerut. There were never three military leaders more unlike in their respective methods and character than the three under whom I served directly and personally.

Sir Baker Russell, a dashing Cavalry leader, did not know a single word of command as laid down in the Drill Book, but he rushed into action with instinctive knowledge of what was required, and by sheer dash and determination carried the thing through whether the fight was in the field against an enemy or on paper with "the authorities."

The Duke of Connaught, of wider experience in the world, had the extraordinary gift of seeing the human side of every venture. He realised how far his officers and how far his men could go, and through his personal sympathy and memory of every personality with which he came into contact, he gained the whole-hearted and devoted team work of those serving under him.

My new Chief, Sir Henry Smyth, was about as nearly the opposite of Sir Baker Russell as you could get; very slow and careful in his deliberations he looked at the question or plan from every point of view, in principle and in detail with an unbiased eye, and he saved himself from falling into many a fatal error by his calm forethought and use of experience.

Well, for a young officer learning his Staff work, those instructors gave a valuable lead, if only one had the sense and the power to follow it.


Life on the Staff at the Cape, under a well-loved General and popular lady, was a very happy and enjoyable experience. It was hardly what one would call soldiering, but there was lots of Headquarters work, more especially as the post of Military Secretary being temporarily vacant, I was told off to act in that capacity in addition to my duties as A.D.C This gave me most valuable training and experience in Staff work.

In my spare time I had plenty of occupation since I was Hon. Sec. of the Polo Club, for which I got up fetes and gymkhanas in order to raise funds for making our ground and pavilion.

Then, in addition to lending a hand in theatricals, Pierrette Minstrels, Drawing Society, etc., I was second whip and, for one short season, Master of the Cape Foxhounds.

At this time the Governor of the Cape was Sir Hercules Robinson, afterwards Lord Rosmead. He was a typical Colonial Governor, very British, a diplomatist, and a sportsman, and managed to look all three.

Lady Robinson on her part looked a typical duchess, stately and very sure of her own mind. And she caused for me one of the most terrifying experiences it has ever been my luck to go through.

I wanted to secure her patronage for a concert I was getting up and called at Government House for the purpose. I was a very shy young officer and hoped to the last moment that she might not be at home. But there she was and I was shown in.

Although she used them to scrutinise me Her Ladyship did not need lorgnettes to see that I was in a powerful funk. She put me through a close catechism as to my feelings towards each in turn of the many charming young ladies of the Cape, and appeared to think less and less of me as we went through the list without any exciting discovery.

Finally, when I was reduced to a nervous rag she asked: " What about this concert ? Are you going to sing one of your imitations of a Prima Donna? " Thinking to please her I said yes. "Then sing it now," was her order.

There was no way out of it. I halted, I hesitated, but I had to do it. Can you picture it? Alone and helpless under that pitiless gaze I started miserably to sing in my ridiculous high falsetto those runs and trills which had made me such a hero to myself on the stage.

These was precious little of the hero about me now. But gradually I warmed a little to my work and was in the middle of a tour de force which trilled to the top notes of my compass when the door opened and in marched a footman followed by a portentous butler bringing tea. I didn’t know whether to stop or what to do. What I most wanted was that the earth should open and swallow me up. As it was I brought my performance to an end within the next bar or two, and exercising all my dramatic powers I explained to her, for the benefit of the butler, that that was the sort of thing we might expect at the concert.

What the butler saw

Then she gave me tea and I soon found that under that, to me, alarming exterior, there was a soul full of humour and a heart full of kindness.

Altogether I was now in a very different kind of atmosphere from that of soldiering, and for a time it was a pleasant change. Indeed it was great fun, a regular beano, when . . . bang came a bombshell.

  Baden-Powell’w, Memories of India is a collection of stories from B-P’s diaries and letters home. Chapters on the Afghan War and its aftermath and on skirmishes on the Northwest frontier. These stories are full of B-P’s personality and capture the adventuresome spirit of the Chief Scout in his early days in the army.
The 13th Hussars and The Light Dragoons. Perhaps most important to the Victorian soldier was the regiment in which he served. B-P joined the 13th Hussars as a junior officer at the beginning of his career and maintained his ties with it, as Colonel of the Regiment long past his retirement from the Army. The heritage of the 13th Hussars is carried by The Light Dragoons.

Lessons from the Varsity of Life
Chapter V: Soldiering
"Zululand, 1896"
Lessons from the Varsity of Life
Chapter V: Soldiering
"With a Native Levy in Ashanti"
Lessons from the Varsity of Life
Contents and Introduction
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Early Years and Military Years
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Last Modified: 6:30 AM on August 22, 1999